Innovating without a budget

Given these tough current economic climate I'm interested in how can you innovate without spending any money at all?

This scenario cropped up for me recently as I was chatting to an old friend who has just taken on responsibility for innovation within the company he works for, a successful software development company, that works primarily within the pharmaceutical sector. The company is full of scientists and other left brain types.

He was asking me for ideas about things they could do i leapt in with various ideas, but they all required some cash e.g. buying various books, bringing in external facilitation, and setting aside some budget to kick start various promising experiments and bringing them to proof of concept stage. He slightly sheepishly thanked me for the suggestions but then came clean that there was no budget, at all! Not even for a book or two. The emphasis is new for them and I think the senior management are reluctant to put money into high risk activity without it proving it's value.

We often talk about the value of innovating around constraints but what about a very hard constraint such as zero cash and just some time and good will of colleagues?

So my suggestions for what it's worth are:

  1. Get out more – set aside some time to meet people – clients, customers, other companies or people doing interesting stuff. don't try too hard at first to link it immediately to the business. Just try to get inspired initially.

  2. Mix things up – sit in a different seat, find some right brain thinkers, stir things up a bit, start researching other fields or domains.

  3. Encourage both uncertainty and decisiveness – the danger with left brain organisation is they will close down new ideas before they've had time to mature so it is hard to develop new ideas. But at the same time be decisive about killing bad ideas or more importantly trying new stuff.

  4. Find a few quick wins – are there some obvious things you could implement now that would prove the value of innovation within the company to secure some cash to try slightly larger scale projects.

That's as far as I got as a first attempt. But what do you think? I'd be really interested if you could help come up with ideas for what he, or anybody, could do to innovate without spending money. Thanks.


  1. I assume your friend has web access……..millions of sites filled with inspiration and most are free. He doesn’t even have to leave the house to do that research. Take a ‘duvet day’ and spend it surfing the web. If he is a creative thinker I guarantee some innovation thoughts/proposals for his business will come out of it….sort of brain storming with the web. Chance favours the prepared mind and the internet is a web of chance. If we look at learnings from nature one thing is for certain, in times of crisis nature makes its greatest evolutionary leaps. We are in a time of monumental financial crisis……I predict some serious innovation as a result.

  2. Using the intranet to harness the “left brains” to just articulate the very clear problems they are encountering, and then seeing whether they respond to each other’s areas. Getting dialogue from within can be as powerful as from externals coming in. Definitely important to include any of the people who are more outward facing in those sorts of discussions, so people who answer the phone, speak to clients and so on. They just found ways to ask the sort of questions that people wanted to engage with and then found 100’s of their “left-brainers” throwing new ideas in to the pot. I know of a large company that used the intranet to encourage innovation in their services and products, creating discussions and then leading to new services being developed through the online conversations.

  3. Thanks too to James – that’s a classic article. Really useful.
    And Sian – agree re the need for conversations and incorporating a few right-brainers, but where can you find a few ‘for hire for free’ when there are few (or none) in the company?

  4. Sorry for the delay in replying! Not been properly online for a while.. well there are a lot of people like me about who would be okay about having a coffee and a conversation and perhaps donating a few provocative questions to inspire discussion on an intranet and an attitude to innovation…I reckon hanging out with all those social innovators would be a good thing!

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